By this point in George W. Bush’s second term, the dangers of his Administration’s national security policy are clear. From the debacle of “preventive” war in Iraq to the abuses of human rights at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the Bush Administration’s post-September 11 policies have had disastrous consequences.

These failures of the Bush foreign policy should have opened the way to the presentation of substantive alternatives by the Democrats. Sadly, that has not been the case. For example, a brief outline of the “Real Security” policy, released on March 29 by the Democratic leadership in Congress, dodges the most important issues. The document has some good proposals, including a call to promote energy efficiency and alternative fuels. A concrete plan that talks about where to invest and what the results are likely to be would offer a sharp contrast to the Bush Administration’s “all oil, all the time” energy policy.

The positive elements of the Democratic plan are overshadowed, however, by its implication that it may be necessary to increase military spending beyond the levels already reached during the Bush buildup. Counting the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US military spending is weighing in at more than $550 billion per year, higher than the peak levels reached during the Reagan buildup or the Vietnam War. Yet the Democratic statement speaks of the need to rebuild the military without calling for any cuts in unnecessary programs. This may be a tactical decision aimed at showing that Democrats too can be tough on defense, but all it indicates is that they can compete with Republicans in wasting defense dollars.

A second approach that has received considerable attention is found in New Republic editor at large Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight: Why Liberals–and Only Liberals–Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. Beinart’s book stresses the importance of working with allies and the need for justice at home as foundations of a sound foreign policy; but these themes are more than offset by his messianic advocacy of nonstop military interventionism.

The breadth of Beinart’s proposed mission for the military is stunning: “It would be naïve…to think that freedom, even broadly defined…is enough to defeat jihadism…. From the Middle East to Southeast Asia, from the Horn of Africa to the Sahel, the United States may need to enter stateless zones, capture or kill the jihadists taking refuge there, and stay long enough to begin rebuilding the state.”

After more than three years and $300 billion spent in Iraq–a war Beinart supported–one is hard-pressed to know when the beginning of the rebuilding of the state will have been accomplished in any given intervention. In keeping with his ambitious military agenda, Beinart supports a stable or growing military budget, deriding progressives who “casually urge cutting the defense budget.”

The Progressive Policy Institute–the research arm of the Democratic Leadership Council–has produced its own set of proposals for reforming US military strategy. The DLC analysis shares Beinart’s call for a muscular liberalism grounded in a “stronger and larger military.” That being said, the DLC analysis does contain some common-sense proposals for expanding nonmilitary forms of engagement. But despite its nod to diplomacy, when push comes to shove the PPI’s proposed strategy speaks of “prevention” of looming threats in purely military terms, as in “destroying weapons of mass destruction…and the means to produce them in rogue states”–essentially a policy of bombing the bombs.

The highest priority for any new approach to defense is to broaden the definition of security to include all threats to human life, whether they stem from terrorism, disease, environmental degradation, natural disasters or entrenched poverty. This concept of security as protection makes it clearer that the military is only one of many tools that can be used to address urgent threats. Strength should not be equated with more military dollars but with the application of the right tools to the right problems.

An example of this approach is the Unified Security Budget (USB), the product of a task force of nongovernmental policy analysts that includes officials who have served in the Pentagon, Congress and the uniformed military. Its most recent report proposes a “security shift” that would cut $62 billion from military programs and invest $52 billion in nonmilitary security tools. Proposed military cuts include cold war-era systems like the F-22 fighter plane, excessive nuclear forces and the costly, unworkable missile defense program. Alternative security proposals by the USB task force include beefed-up spending on the State Department’s diplomatic capabilities and on alternative energy sources, economic development in the global South and a more sensible approach to defending US territory that includes chemical plant protection, port security and increased investment in public health.

There are a number of critical security issues that go beyond changing budget priorities. For example, efforts to “get tough” with Iran and North Korea over their pursuit or development of nuclear weapons need to be replaced by genuine negotiations. In Iran this could mean allowing a small civilian nuclear program under a strict regime of international inspections and monitoring. In North Korea the United States should take the lead in offering energy assistance, financial aid and a nonaggression pact in exchange for a rollback of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and the elimination of its current weapons. Opening trade with North Korea could help to open up the country economically and politically. Under these circumstances, this could eventually lead to reunification with the South, eliminating the threat altogether.

As for Iraq, US military withdrawal within a definite time frame (a year at most) is more likely to reduce internal violence there than the Bush Administration’s “stay the course” policy. Withdrawal should be accompanied by a new infusion of economic aid–and a policy toward Iraq’s oil resources that restores control to the Iraqi government. This economic program should be paralleled by an effort to negotiate conflicts among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions within Iraq. Negotiations should be backed by a multiparty coalition that includes Iraq’s neighbors–from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to Iran and Syria, to Turkey and Kuwait–plus major powers like the United States, Russia, China and the European Union. To avoid the gridlock that might ensue from working with such a large group, a smaller contact group should be chosen to do the direct negotiating with Iraqi factions.

Merely focusing on Iran and North Korea is not enough; drastic reductions in global nuclear arsenals should be pursued as well. Ultimately, the only reliable defense against nuclear weapons is to get rid of them. This means accelerating reductions in the nuclear holdings of the United States and Russia, which still number in the tens of thousands if one counts weapons being held in reserve. This step should be accompanied by a speeded-up process of reducing loose nukes and bomb-making materials in Russia, so that this vital task can be accomplished in four years rather than the thirteen or more it will take at current funding levels. This could be done with an additional annual investment equivalent to the cost of about one month of the occupation in Iraq.

The depoliticizing of the gathering and use of intelligence should also be a top priority. Hyped intelligence was used to sell the war in Iraq, and there are already signs that it is forming the core of a case for military action against Iran. In addition to making the details of intelligence assessments public, the CIA and its fellow intelligence agencies should be taken out of the business of covert operations, secret detentions in so-called black sites, torture, secret eavesdropping on domestic targets and other illegal activities. The gathering of intelligence should be the CIA’s only job. Greater respect for the information gathered by international agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency–the only agency that was right in its assessment of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capabilities–would also be a huge step forward.

In addition to broadening our definition of what constitutes security, we must begin a national discussion on what the mission of our armed forces should be. When should the United States use military force? Only to attack specific terrorist strongholds, to act against nations that are poised to attack the United States or one of its closest allies, to prevent genocide or to assist in policing peace agreements in unstable regions. The Bush Administration’s doctrine of preventive war–which does not mean acting against an imminent threat but rather promoting a first-strike war against a country that poses a distant potential danger to US security–should be abandoned. The United States should seek United Nations and Congressional approval for acts of war and reach out to allies in a genuine fashion, not in the “take it or leave it” manner favored by the Bush Administration. Without a thorough debate over how and when to use force, efforts to change US military spending and strategy will be doomed to failure.